by Bri Alexander
Frozen in framing your messages convene
conveying a meaning that’s not necessarily what you mean.
But intentions don’t live here, here in the frame,
and how that affects us is not always the same.
It’s not simply a symptom of “oh, you misunderstood,”
a misinterpretation, a “read it again, if you would.”
The message is always there, open to all who seek it;
others just don’t unpack it before they write it or speak it.
You see, frames center worlds and draw a specific gaze
while casting aside all other perspectives, beliefs, and ways.
So when you frame something, you are obligated to think:
“what worlds will I expand, what worlds will I shrink?”
With this in mind, let us now come down from the abstract
to think through real ways in which framing can impact
BIPOC students and our experiences in a place
that often excludes us and our voices in time and space.
I got the workshop invite in my inbox one day
with little text in the email yet novels to say.
“Will you attend ‘Decentering Whiteness’? Check yes or no.”
My heart sank to my feet; why would I want to go?
That title centers whiteness despite its intention
because whiteness is the only experience that gets mentioned.
Can all life experiences be summed up as “white” or “not”?
Are Black, Indigenous, POC voices still being cast as one joint lot?
And how can you decenter something without knowing who
you are then centering and uplifting in their stead, in their lieu?
Are we to assume that all BIPOC communities will act the same
when we are centering our perspectives and staking our claim?
The focus on whiteness remains, undoing the workshop’s purpose
and while it might not seem a big deal, it makes me, frankly, furious.
How are we still not mindful of the messages we send?
Why aren’t academics thinking of how their words might offend?
Don’t we realize yet that what isn’t said also has a voice?
That what is silence to some manifests to others as noise?
Harmful framing isn’t just a fluke, accidental, a “but we didn’t know!”
It’s a manifestation of embedded colonial thinking and it has to go.
I demand that academia diligently widens its framing lens
to include equitably the perspectives and voices of all humxns.
Think about this tiny example of how academia continues to erase,
how two words in a workshop title can sum up the trials BIPOC face
as students who are still lumped together as merely “not white”
instead of wildly distinctive, important, and bright.
Give us workshops on centering Black Puerto Ricans, Shawnees,
Māoris, Shipibos, Tlicho Denes, Ashantis...
I want space for all our unique voices to be centered and heard;
I want titles where undoing is not the primary concern.
Academia needs to fight for those who it has historically overthrown
or suffer the consequences of centering colonial understandings all alone.
Imagine what other examples, stories, perspectives, etc. exist.
Imagine how it feels to watch this anti-BIPOC pattern persist.
And then let’s imagine how much better academia could be
if it made room at the table for all peoples to sit and eat.
Imagine how much more spectacular the picture could become
if BIPOC knowledge was centered, framed, and added to the sum.
And I believe that, just as framing can be a problem, it can also be a source
for including all our remarkable views and correcting academia’s colonial course.
Hatitoh | ᎣᏏᏲ | hello. Laalo’kacitiifa niisaawaanwa wiifowe | ᏦᏁᎾ ᏓᏆᏙᎠ ᏣᎳᎩ ᎬᏂ | Bri is my English name. I come here with all of my complexities. I write this poem as a member of the Shawnee Tribe + a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and as a doctoral student in linguistic anthropology where I walk a fine line between honoring my Indigenous communities and contributing to an institution that continues to wreak havoc on them. I can (and do) appreciate the connections that academia makes as well as its attempts to do better for my relatives and kin, and I can (and will) also be angry when it fails us. Wahi | ᎭᏩ | It’s all right. I’m not afraid to live in complication, and I ask you to not be, either. We’re in this together.
So how did we get here? Why am I berating a workshop title (“Decentering Whiteness”) that intends to shift the attention from white systems of power to non-white ones? Largely (and briefly) because, when looking at the title in use and not its intention only, (1) it leaves these non-white systems nameless, reinforcing whiteness as the static entity of analysis, and (2) its focus is on undoing, which is not an honorable act in my Indigenous communities. Let’s talk about these points further:
(1) If we’re to decenter whiteness, we need to name what we plan to center, otherwise we are saying that everything outside of whiteness will be centered the same way and/or the pathways taken by non-white systems to decenter whiteness will be the same. Both of these statements are simply untrue, and yet the title “Decentering Whiteness” leads us here. What does the workshop plan to center and how does it plan on centering something new? It is unclear; all we know is whiteness.
(2) The Cherokee lifeways that we learn and pass down from generation to generation are on working together and helping others, not on unseating other perspectives that might differ from our own. We do not do the work of undoing others; we choose instead to do the work of making room for ourselves as well as for others who need space. The intention to undo a community’s perspective and silence their voice is that of a colonizer, not of my Indigenous communities. This workshop title, then, is a reflection and continuation of the work that colonizers have done for centuries (i.e., undoing) and does not honor my Indigenous ways of knowing and being in the world.
While sometimes it feels like we have miles to go with framing and shallow keywords that do as much harm as good, I admit I find some hope in the fact that they can also be used to unite and repair. For example, I’ve also been invited to a workshop titled “Centering Blackness in Hispanic Sociolinguistics” -- now that’s a workshop I want to attend! Though the topic of this workshop is not my own, I cheer on its sheer existence, for whenever space is carved out for a minoritized, Othered community to be vocal, it opens the door for all to share the stage. And despite how these voices might or might not harmonize, the point is that they all get to speak, sing, yell, chant, cry, and whatever else they want because we are all meaningful and have the right to be heard.
Bri Alexander (she/her/they) is an anthro-political linguist currently working on a Ph.D. in Linguistic Anthropology at the GC and with a masters degree in Native American Linguistics from the University of Arizona. She teaches language classes for the Shawnee Tribe and in the past has developed online language programs for the Cherokee Nation. She also connects to her ancestors via beadworking (www.waawena.com, @waawena on IG) and frequently communes with nature on long walks. Finally, she is an unapologetic cat mom to Sirius and Ouna, who are simultaneously the source of her daily joy and all her gray hairs.